For those who couldn’t make it

I gave the last of my pre-holiday talks on Righting the Balance yesterday at the Middle East Institute.  Here is the latest iteration of the talking points I’ve been using, admittedly with occasional departures to tell a story or respond to a skeptical look.  

1. Thank you for that kind introduction. It is truly an honor to present at MEI, which welcomed me as a scholar after I moved to SAIS from USIP three years ago and provided a steady flow of interns who did essential fact-checking, footnoting and commenting on the manuscript.

2. As I am going to say some harsh things about the State Department and USAID, and even suggest they be abolished in favor of a single Foreign Office, I would like to emphasize from the first that I have enormous respect for the Foreign Service and the devotion of its officers to pursuing America’s interests abroad. I feel the same way about the US military.

3. But I don’t think the Foreign Service is well served by the institutions that hire, pay and deploy our diplomats and aid workers. And I don’t think our military should be called upon to make up for civilian deficiencies.

4. My book, Righting the Balance, is aimed at correcting those imbalances. But it does not start there.

5. It starts with the sweep of American history, which has given our military a leading role in America’s foreign affairs since at least the French and Indian war.

6. Americans think of their country as a peaceful one, but in fact we have had troops deployed in conflict zones for more than a quarter of our history—not even counting wars against native Americans and pirates—and every year since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

7. With each of those wars, we improved our technology and expanded our reach, becoming by the end of the 20th century the world’s only remaining superpower.

8. We have a strong, well-exercised military arm for projecting power. It is so strong that it is reaching a point of diminishing returns: every additional dollar buys miniscule improvement.

9. But our civilian capacities are more limited. This was glaringly apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan, where State and AID have struggled, and all too often failed, to meet the requirements.

10. It has also been glaringly apparent during the Arab uprisings, which not only caught our diplomats by surprise but left them puzzled about what to do.

11. This gap in our capabilities is more important than ever before. The enemies who cause us problems today are not often states: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq fell quickly, as did the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

12. We won the wars. We lost the peace.

13. The main threats today come not from other strong states but from non-state actors who find haven and support in fragile, weak and collapsed states.

14. National security, always more than a military mission, now requires state-building capacities that are sorely lacking in both State and AID. They have scrambled hard to meet the needs in Bosnia, Kosovo, South Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are not much better configured than when I arrived in Sarajevo for the first time in November 1994.

15. Some of you will be thinking, that’s OK, because we never want to do this state-building stuff again.

16. It’s not only my colleague Michael Mandelbaum who thinks that way. Each and every president since 1989 has told himself that, and each one has discovered that it is far easier to go to war and kill enemies than it is to withdraw, leaving behind a collapsed state that will regenerate those enemies. Unless you are willing to fight on forever—even longer than the “long war”—you need to build capable states that protect their citizens reasonably well.

17. We are discovering this today in Yemen, where the drone war appears to have created more terrorists than it has killed. This is one of the main reasons President Obama has avoided military intervention in Syria, but the post-war effort there will still be a major one, even if is not primarily a U.S. responsibility. The same is true in eastern DRC and in Colombia, where peace is threatening to break out after decades of war. America won’t be able to avoid being engaged when North Korea or Cuba collapses. Nor will we stay aloof if nuclear-armed Pakistan starts coming apart. Let’s not even think about Iran.

18. So my view is that we need to prepare for the day, not continue to delude ourselves that we will never do it again.

19. But I would be the first to admit that post-war state-building, a subject I teach at SAIS, is hard and expensive. Anticipation is cheaper and better. We need civilian foreign policy instruments that will take early action to prevent states from collapsing and help initiate balanced reforms appropriate to the particular context in which they are undertaken.

20. We’ve been reasonably successful at allowing this to happen in much of Latin America and East Asia, where recent decades have seen many countries turn in the direction of democratic transition. Brazil, Chile, South Korea, Indonesia are sterling examples of transitions that the United States nurtured, encouraged or at least allowed.

21. That’s what we failed to do effectively in the Arab world, with consequences that are now on the front pages every day. We failed to anticipate the revolution in Tunisia. In Libya we failed to help the new regime establish a monopoly on the legitimate means of violence, a failure that cost us an ambassador and three of his colleagues. In Egypt, we’ve been inconstant, supporting whoever and whatever gains power. In Syria, we failed to support moderates, only to see them displaced and replaced by extremists.

22. The specific areas I describe as lacking in today’s State and AID are these:

• Mobilizing early action

• Reforming security services

• Promoting democracy

• Countering violent extremism

• Encouraging citizen and cultural diplomacy

23. These are all efforts at the periphery of traditional diplomacy, and I readily admit that the last three are better done mainly outside government while the first two are more inherently governmental.

24. But I don’t think we can get them done with our current institutions, which were designed for different purposes in other eras. Inertia and legacy are too strong.

25.  If you ask yourself what we need to meet our foreign policy challenges for the next 10-20 years, the answer is:  nothing like what we’ve got.

26. What we need is to rebuild from the ground up, with current and future requirements in mind.

27. The book doesn’t offer a detailed design, but it does suggest that we need a single Foreign Office as well as a much-enhanced nongovernmental effort, operated at arms’ length from officialdom but with much greater Congressional funding than it has today.

28. I am not however prepared to propose, as so many have before me, that this be funded by passing up an F22 or two. I think State and AID have the resources needed, but unfortunately tied up in elephantine embassies supporting other US government agencies.

29. Shrinking these dramatically would provide the funds for a much sleeker and more effective Foreign Office, including a corps of several thousand people able and willing to deploy, with or without US troops, to difficult environments to take on the hard work of conflict prevention and state-building where required.

30. What we need is a far more agile, anticipatory and mobile Foreign Service, one built for a world in which virtually everyone will soon be connected to worldwide communications and ordinary citizens count for much more than ever before in world history.

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2 thoughts on “For those who couldn’t make it”

  1. Thank you Daniel for once again for your continuing good works! It is timely for Americans to ponder “Righting the Balance” for so many aspects of our culture and country. Clearly the divisiveness of our political discourse makes it difficult to come to compromise and consensus.

    Having spent a career as an American professional officer with the UNHCR, I can’t begin to count the number of times, American foreign policy decisions showed inability for
    • Mobilizing early action
    • Promoting democracy
    • Countering violent extremism
    • Encouraging citizen and cultural diplomacy

    Working alongside UN as well as NATO peace-keeping was particularly enlightening of how civilian and diplomatic situational understanding and collaborations were lacking.

    Last night, I celebrated the 50th anniversary of the International Relations Council of Riverside (California). One of the questions, we asked ourselves was how can we, an NGO dedicated to promoting cultural, educational and commercial ties around the globe, prepare ourselves for the next 50 years. Perhaps it might be possible to arrange for you to address our membership in the future.

    1. If you can get me to California, talking to your group would be a great pleasure. Anyone who worries about the next 50 years is a friend of mine!

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